The Darkest Minds
“While Rotten Tomatoes pegs The Darkest Minds at a depressing 17%, its audience score of 74% tells a different story.”
Title: The Darkest Minds
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson 👩🏻🇰🇷🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Chad Hodge 👨🏼🇺🇸 based on the novels by Alexandra Bracken 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
The Darkest Minds may have been a New York Times-bestselling series by Alexandra Bracken, but it flopped at the box office. With a production budget of $34 million, 20th Century Fox made back just $41 million worldwide on the film—a film that suffers the ignominious position as the single biggest drop in theaters since at least 1982. So what’s the deal, is the movie really so terrible?
No, it’s not! While Rotten Tomatoes pegs the movie at a depressing 17%, its audience score of 74%—which encompasses almost 2,000 user ratings at this time of review—reveals that something is getting through to viewers.
I veer closer to the audience score, myself. The Darkest Minds is obviously not an Oscar contender. It’s muddled and derivative. And yet, I watched it all in one sitting without dual-screening. That alone says a lot about the likability of the movie, especially considering my voracious addiction to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, whose resumé includes Kung Fu Panda 2, makes an enjoyable teen movie that features solid acting and a protagonist, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), who tethers her ensemble cast with admirable skill. The plot moves quickly, progressing from point to point with few surprises but plenty of visual interest to keep things lively. And while the soundtrack does feel especially uninspired, I still found myself invested in Ruby’s character and moved by the film’s bittersweet ending. What more do you need out of a 100-minute flick that doesn't try to rock the boat?
Plenty of female-led films have made headlines lately, but many forget all about supporting women. Or as Alicia Vikander, who played the protagonist of this year’s Tomb Raider, bluntly reveals, “I did four films in a row, where there wasn't a single scene with another woman.”
Luckily, Ruby is much more than a figurehead in The Darkest Minds. She harbors a tragic past with her mother; a tentative new bond with Cate (Mandy Moore), the doctor who springs Ruby from an internment camp; and she builds a sisterly relationship with the younger Zu (Miya Cech), even if the latter never speaks a word.
The only feminist stumble is the centering of Ruby’s narrative around men. The plot hinges on a sweet, teenage romance with Liam (Harris Dickinson), and the main obstacle to their happiness is the appearance of Clancy (Patrick Gibson), another boy who incites jealousy thanks to his special bond with Ruby as they are the only known people with the ability to control minds. Writers later reveal Clancy’s dark side through one of media’s most overused devices: having him attempt sexual assault. Mercifully, Ruby thwarts him with ease, breaking out of his hold like it’s wet tissue paper. But the fact of putting her in such a rote position feels incredibly lazy.
I do want to mention, however, that Ruby’s vulnerability and softness is welcome as a quietly subversive characterization for Black women—a demographic that has long been portrayed as the “strong ones” who don’t need the protection of gentle souls like Liam. Unfortunately, that vulnerability winds up dictating Ruby’s motivations instead of letting it simply deepen her character. In contrast, Ava DuVernay paints Meg, the lead of A Wrinkle in Time, with deep wells of vulnerability while focusing her journey as an inward one that doesn’t rely on key romances to progress.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 25% of key cast and crew members were POC.
By virtue of having a woman of color direct this film, The Darkest Minds picks up some points in representation. Nelson was born in South Korea and her filmography includes the distinction of the highest-grossing film helmed by a female director—at least, until Wonder Woman and director Patty Jenkins inherited that crown from Kung Fu Panda 2.
Onscreen, the film also does well on ethnic diversity. Led by Stenberg, who is half Black and half Danish, Ruby’s casting is welcome if not exactly revolutionary, what with her light skin that easily passes the brown paper bag test and her glossy, curly tresses. Her posse adds to the diversity of the movie though, with Zu played by Miya Cech who is mixed-race Japanese and white, and Chubs played by Black actor Skylan Brooks.
Still, all the major players in positions of power who surround Ruby—her love interest Liam, her nemesis Clancy, Clancy’s powerful father from which the internment camps originated, and Ruby’s savior Cate—are all white. Ruby's friends, who are much more diverse, occupy a second tier of narrative importance.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.83/5
Although The Darkest Minds gets off to a disorienting start, plunging headfirst into the world of teen internment camps and special abilities with little fanfare, I would still recommend putting this on at any function that could use some background telly—even at a family function, since this film remains pretty tame despite its PG-13 label. Nelson doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the film’s inclusion of kids of color is an important quality and shouldn’t be overlooked in a genre that veers overwhelmingly towards young white protagonists.